Sydney Film Festival unveils virtual line-up

‘The Skin of Others’. 

In moving elements of the Sydney Film Festival online, director Nashen Moodley was particularly keen to focus on Australian cinema and support the local industry.

The festival unveiled its virtual line-up today, consisting of four strands: The Documentary Australia Foundation (DAF) Award for Best Australian Documentary, including eight world premieres; The Dendy Awards for Australian Short Films; Europe! Voices of Women in Film, and Screenability, featuring three shorts from practitioners with disability.

Running from June 10 – 21, the full program consists of 33 films from 12 countries including 16 world premieres, with seven feature films, 13 documentaries, and 13 shorts. Every feature-length film will be presented with a Q&A from the filmmaker, and series of industry talks and panels will be announced in the coming weeks.

When the Sydney Film Festival was cancelled due to COVID-19 concerns in March – a move Moodley which describes as “extremely difficult” but necessary – around 50 per cent of the programming had been completed.

It was not initially clear that a virtual festival was in the realm of possibility, though there was a strong drive among the festival team to try to support the industry and maintain connection with its audience.

After observing festivals like CPH:DOX who moved to virtual iterations and were able to present films securely, Moodley and his team moved quickly.

Like CPH:DOX, Sydney Film Festival will use streaming platform Shift 72 to stream films – a New Zealand-based platform that will also be utilised by Melbourne International Film Festival in August.

Of course, due to rights issues, it would have been near impossible for Sydney to put its entire line-up – which usually tallies around 300 films – online, and many filmmakers would rather opt for their film to premiere in a cinema. Further, while the festival is usually able to pipeline films from the Cannes Film Festival, this year that was obviously not an option.

In that sense, Moodley says there was a lot more toing and froing between filmmakers and the festival than there typically would be to get the virtual event up; filmmakers needed to be reassured how their films would be presented.

However, he is pleased the result.

“Obviously, the entire roster of films that are usually available to us to present in cinemas were not available in these circumstances,” he tells IF.

“What we wanted to do was really to focus on Australian cinema. We thought by maintaining the Documentary Australia Foundation Award for Australian Documentary and the Dendy Awards for Australian Short Films, we’d be able to support our local industry as far as possible and get these films seen. I think that was a good approach because it made those conversations a bit easier. These are filmmakers who know the festival very well, and we know many of the filmmakers.”

The 10 DAF competition films will vie for a $10,000 cash prize to be presented at a virtual awards ceremony on June 18.

They include Tom Murray’s portrait of Aboriginal WWI soldier Douglas Grant, The Skin of Others, starring the late Balang Tom E. Lewis in his final role; Cornel Ozies’ Our Law, commissioned by NITV, which looks at WA’s first Indigenous-run police station, and Kathy Drayton’s exploration of the what the future holds for her pop-artist daughter Lupa J amid threats of climate change, The Weather Diaries.

Isabel Peppard and Josie Hess’s Gold Coast Film Festival indie award winner Morgana, about housewife turned pornography icon Morgana Muses, also features on the line-up, together with Ili Baré’s The Leadership, which follows a group women in STEM as they travel to Antarctica, and Women of Steel, Robynne Murphy’s debut film about a group of Wollongong women’s 14-year fight to work in the steel industry.

There’s also Ros Horin’s Rosemary’s Way, about a group of migrant women in Western Sydney, and their champion, Rosemary Kariuki; documentary-fiction hybrid The Plastic House from Allison Chhorn, which explores memory and healing from a young Cambodian-Australian woman’s perspective; Nays Baghai’s Descent, about professional ice free divers, and A Hundred Years of Happiness, an obs-doc from Jakeb Anhvu about a young woman in rural Vietnam who is preparing to move to South Korea for an arranged marriage.

The shorts line-up includes the directorial debut of actor Eliza Scanlen, Mukbang; Karen Pearlman’s I Want to Make A Film About Women, Sara Hirner’s GNT; Alies Sluiter’s Ayaan; Olivia Aleksoski’s Her Own Music; Emily and Hannah Jordan’s Obscura; Radheya Jegatheva’s The Quiet; Alex Wu’s Idol; Mert Berdilek’s The Fall and Jordan Giusti’s Grevillea. 

The shorts will compete for The Dendy Live Action Short Award, The Rouben Mamoulian Award for Best Director and the Yoram Gross Animation, as judged by jurors Dr George Miller, Bryan Brown and Sophie Hyde.

Screenability, presented with Screen NSW, will feature the world premieres of Emily Dash’s Groundhog Night, starring Chris Heywood, Robyn Nevin and Susan Prior; Nina Oyama’s Diving In, and Anthea William’s Safety Net.

The Europe! Voices of Women in Film strand, which features seven features and three documentaries, is a partnership between Sydney Film Festival and European Film Promotion that the festival has run for five years now.

Again, Moodley was worried about getting rights holders to agree, but thankfully each of the 10 films invited were keen to participate. Among his highlights ranks Kosovar director Antoneta Kastrati’s Zana, Irish monster film Sea Fever; and Force of Habit, a Finnish anthology film from seven female directors dealing with gender stereotypes and the way women’s lives are conditioned, even in the post-#metoo era.

‘Sea Fever’.

While Moodley is pleased that the festival has been able to move online, he believes ultimately that the home of a festival is still in cinemas.

“To present a film at the State Theatre with a filmmaker present is such an incredible experience; impossible to replicate online. To have people together discussing films, debating films afterwards is something I don’t think you can easily replicate online. So for me, I just want to get back to the cinemas as quickly as possible.”

In that sense, Moodley hopes that next year’s iteration will be held in the way people are accustomed. While production shutdowns have some festivals wondering what will be available for programming next year, he believes a “large number” of films considered for the 2020 edition of the Sydney Film Festival will be available and premiere at the festival in 2021.

In addition to the virtual event,  SFF has also partnered with SBS On Demand to present a collection of 40 films from past iterations on the platform for free for a month from June 10.

These include the Academy Award nominated Belgian drama The Broken Circle Breakdown; Studio Ghibli’s The Red Turtle, Erica Glynn’s She Who Must Be Loved and Certain Women, starring Laura Dern, Kristen Stewart and Michelle Williams.

The festival has also put forward Rachel Perkins’ Mabo and Ivan Sen’s Mystery Road for Tribeca/YouTube’s global digital festival, We Are One, which runs from this Friday until June 7.

Tickets are on sale now, prices are as follows: 

  • Screenability package (three films including captioned and standard format): $5
  • Dendy Awards for Australian Short Films (10 films + the three Screenability films): $14
  • Documentary Australia Foundation package (all 10 films): $99
  • Europe! Voices of Women in Film package (all 10 films): $99
  • Single ticket price Documentary Australia Foundation or Europe! Voices of Women in Film: $14
  • Complete package of all films: $199